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United States v. Hamilton

United States District Court, D. Nebraska

April 13, 2018



          John M. Gerrard United States District Judge

         This matter is before the Court upon initial review of the pro se motion to vacate under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 (filing 835) filed by the defendant, Robyn Hamilton. The motion was timely filed less than 1 year after Hamilton's conviction became final. See § 2255(f). The Court's initial review is governed by Rule 4(b) of the Rules Governing Section 2255 Proceedings for the United States District Courts, which provides:

The judge who receives the motion must promptly examine it. If it plainly appears from the motion, any attached exhibits, and the record of prior proceedings that the moving party is not entitled to relief, the judge must dismiss the motion and direct the clerk to notify the moving party. If the motion is not dismissed, the judge must order the United States attorney to file an answer, motion, or other response within a fixed time, or to take other action the judge may order.

         A § 2255 movant is entitled to an evidentiary hearing unless the motion and the files and records of the case conclusively show that the movant is entitled to no relief. § 2255(b); Sinisterra v. United States, 600 F.3d 900, 906 (8th Cir. 2010). Accordingly, a motion to vacate under § 2255 may be summarily dismissed without a hearing if (1) the movant's allegations, accepted as true, would not entitle the movant to relief, or (2) the allegations cannot be accepted as true because they are contradicted by the record, inherently incredible, or conclusions rather than statements of fact. Engelen v. United States, 68 F.3d 238, 240 (8th Cir. 1995); see also Sinisterra, 600 F.3d at 906.


         As relevant, Hamilton was charged with conspiring to distribute and possess with intent to distribute 50 grams or more of methamphetamine. Filing 446; see filing 593. The case proceeded to a jury trial as to Hamilton and a co-defendant, Julio Cesar Ponce-Ybarra. See filing 729. Hamilton did not testify in her own defense. Filing 734 at 819.

         The evidence at trial suggested the existence of a large drug distribution run out of Mexico, and operated in the United States by Eduardo Valenzuela. See, e.g., filing 732 at 117-122. The primary witness against Hamilton was Kailee Davis, a friend of Hamilton's, who was a low-level dealer for the conspiracy. See filing 733 at 170-75. She testified that Hamilton was a methamphetamine user, and Hamilton helped with drug sales in exchange for money and drugs, by storing Davis's money and drugs and keeping financial records. Filing 733 at 176-79. And Javier Rodriguez-Compean, who distributed drugs for Valenzuela, said he had met both Davis and Hamilton at Hamilton's house, and Davis told him Hamilton kept the money and drugs there. Filing 732 at 51-57.

         The government's evidence against Ponce-Ybarra placed him in a different part of the alleged conspiracy. Valenzuela testified that he was receiving drugs from Mexico and distributing them in the United States, and that he used Ponce-Ybarra to transport them. Filing 732 at 131-33. Davis said she never met Ponce-Ybarra. Filing 733 at 205. In other words, both Ponce-Ybarra and Rodriguez-Compean distributed drugs for Valenzuela, but Davis's contact was only with Rodriguez-Compean, and Hamilton's contact was only with Rodriguez-Compean and Davis.

         The jury found Hamilton guilty of conspiracy, and separately found that she was responsible for 50 grams or more of methamphetamine. Filing 598 at 2-3. Ponce-Ybarra was acquitted. Filing 598 at 4. Hamilton appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, which affirmed her conviction. United States v. Hamilton, 837 F.3d 859 (8th Cir. 2016). She now moves to vacate her conviction. Filing 835.


         Hamilton raises four claims in her motion: (1) inconsistent verdicts between herself and Ponce-Ybarra, (2) her "opportunity and desire to testify" to the facts of her case, (3) that she was not tried before a jury of her peers, and (4) sufficiency of the evidence. Filing 835 at 4-8. But as a preliminary matter, the Court notes that the defendant did not raise the first three claims on direct appeal, and claims not raised on direct appeal are procedurally defaulted and may not be raised under § 2255 unless a petitioner can demonstrate (1) cause for the default and actual prejudice or (2) actual innocence. United States v. Moss, 252 F.3d 993, 1000 (8th Cir. 2001).

         Hamilton contends that these claims were not presented on appeal because of ineffective assistance of counsel. Filing 835 at 10. Attorney error is an objective external factor providing cause for excusing a procedural default only if that error amounted to a deprivation of the constitutional right to counsel. Davila v. Davis, 137 S.Ct. 2058, 2065 (2017). Such a claim requires Hamilton to show counsel was objectively unreasonable in failing to discover these issues and raise them on appeal, and but for counsel's failure to raise them, she would have prevailed on her appeal. See Smith v. Robbins, 528 U.S. 259, 285-86 (2000). Accordingly, the Court will consider the merits of these claims in the context of assessing whether counsel was deficient in not raising them on appeal, and whether Hamilton was prejudiced as a result.

         Inconsistent Verdicts

         Hamilton's first claim is that there was "inconsistency of the verdicts in finding her co-defendant not guilty." Filing 835 at 4. But "[i]nconsistency in a verdict is not a sufficient reason for setting it aside." Harris v. Rivera, 454 U.S. 339, 345 (1981). The Supreme Court has "so held with respect to inconsistency between verdicts on separate charges against one defendant, and also with respect to verdicts that treat codefendants in a joint trial ...

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